On July 8, 2020, the Trump Administration announced its decision to officially begin withdrawing the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO). On September 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of State began reprogramming funds away from the global health body and reassigning U.S. experts tasked with supporting the institution.
The WHO is the primary international body with a mandate to support global public health. In addition to playing a key role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, it implements numerous programs to prevent, control, and treat Ebola, measles, malaria, HIV and AIDS, and many other diseases.
As COVID-19 spread around the world, the WHO has played a pivotal role in coordinating international efforts to respond to the pandemic. The international body helps organize global clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of varying drugs against the virus. WHO officials work across the world to aid health ministries in designing plans to prevent and control COVID-19 infections. Additionally, the WHO has provided pivotal testing capacity in countries where local health systems lack the capacity to effectively respond to the virus.
For years leading up to the Trump Administration’s decision to suspend funding, the U.S. has been the WHO’s largest contributor. Because much of the WHO’s activities and resources are concentrated across economically fragile regions of the world, the White House’s decision will have a disproportionate impact on countries with weaker health systems. Because an outbreak anywhere can lead to transmission everywhere, including the U.S., U.S. allies including the United Kingdom have recently increased funding for the WHO.
The Trump Administration’s decision to suspend funding to the WHO has been met by a chorus of protest from physicians groups such as the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and from other organizations including the American Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation. Most importantly, the decision will have a major impact on the ability of people worldwide to realize their fundamental human rights. The right to health is enshrined in several international human rights instruments including Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The right to health includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas concerning health issues, and the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.”
No international body, including the WHO, should be beyond scrutiny. It is legitimate and important to scrutinize an organization’s effectiveness and impartiality or to engage in a collaborative, good-faith effort at institutional reform. In particular, once the pandemic recedes, it will be important to ask questions about the Chinese government’s censorship of scientists and activists who were trying to sound the alarm.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from this global health body, suspend financial contributions and redirect congressionally appropriated funding represents a transparent attempt to politicize the global pandemic response.
- The middle of a pandemic is not the time to withdraw from the World Health Organization. We know that any effort to politicize a pandemic will lead to a world that is sicker, weaker, and more divided. Rather than stepping back from the global response to COVID-19, the U.S. must reinvest in it.
- The World Health Organization is imperfect. But it plays an irreplaceable role in coordinating the global response to the global pandemic, from organizing clinical trials for life-saving medicine to helping some of the world’s poorest countries develop a national action plan.
- The U.S. Department of State must immediately notify Congress of its intention to return all reprogrammed funds and completely pay down the remaining portion of the U.S. 2020 assessment.
- Reverse the Trump Administrations decision to not participate in WHO-led coronavirus vaccine efforts such as the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX).
- Publicly and immediately reverse the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the WHO.
- Letter to Congressional Appropriators on WHO Funding Cuts (April 2020) (available here)
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